11-17-17 - The Rich Get Richer

Call in the dentists – it's the end of another parable and some poor guy has just been thrown into outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus seemed to like this phrase; he used it a lot. I wish I thought he was being funny.

I prefer the parables that emphasize mercy and forgiveness. Yet there seems to be no grace for this hapless servant who hid the talent entrusted to him. He says his piece to the master, and gives him back the coin, saying, “Here you have what is yours.” But the master is livid, saying:

‘You wicked and lazy servant! ...you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless servant, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Wow. This guy might have thought he was doing the right thing, the safe thing. But the safe thing is not what the master considers the right thing. He is not going to give this one a second chance, but will take the resources from him and give it to the one who already doubled his money.

Is this right? Is this fair? Is that how God regards us when we don’t use the riches we’ve been given? Well, God’s ideas of equity and ours often differ. If God wants to see God’s mission accomplished, and God has chosen to work through humankind, it makes sense to give resources to people who have the faith, the vision and the courage to implement them. If we feel impoverished as people or communities of faith, it’s not that we’re bad, or wrong – it may just be that we’re timid, risk-averse, inward-looking.

The problem with this last servant is that he operated out of fear. Jesus invites us to operate out of faith – again and again we hear him reward faith where he sees it. Faith and fear cannot coexist – the more space we give to faith, the less room there is for fear. And vice versa.

What is the greatest gift God has given us? According to St. Paul, it’s love. (I Corinthians 13) Today I suggest we read through this parable again, substituting the word “love” for “talents.” How that opens it up! We are also reminded in I John that, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” Can we invest the love we have in loving others – which is about the most risky thing we can do in this life? Are we spending all we have in love? Or have we buried our love, or some of it, in a hole, covered over, "safe?" Do we bury our love in over-work or stress or sadness, afraid to risk losing what little we have?

That’s a thing about love – if we’re afraid of losing it, we already have. And when we give it away lavishly, we seem to find it multiplying in our lives. That’s how the “rich get richer” in the Life of God. That’s how we make enough wealth to provide for everyone – a wealth of love, enough to reclaim, restore and renew this world and every person it.

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11-16-17 - God's Joy

In some theological circles God is seen as a “watchmaker” – a creator who made the world, wound it up and set it in motion, and sits back watching it tick, for good and ill. This would not be a deity who intervenes in the affairs of his or her creation; this God privileges free will to the max.

At first glance, the “master” in the parable of the talents could bolster such a view of God. He heads off on a journey, leaving resources and instructions – not too specific – with his employees. And, like the long-delayed bridegroom in last week’s parable, he stays gone awhile, so long that perhaps his employees think he’s gone for good, that they run the business now. But no: 
After a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.”

And the way he goes about the accounting suggests an ongoing relationship, which has not been diminished by his absence. To each of the two servants who doubled their money he says,
“Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” 
Inviting others into his “joy” does not sound like an aloof watchmaker boss.

Why, I wonder, did Jesus tell of two servants who had differing amounts to invest? Saying it twice to make the point? Maybe. And maybe he wants to be sure we get the message that it’s not the amount that matters, it’s the act of investing, taking risks, seeking to grow what we’ve been given. Investing our gifts is not only for the wealthy or the multiply blessed – it’s for all followers of the Jesus way. The master's praising each of these servants the same way, regardless of how much they earned, suggests that God is more interested in our engagement than our results. No matter the total, if we invest we are invited into God's joy.

Joy is a state of being that incorporates contentment, trust, serenity, happiness, yet is deeper and more encompassing than any of these. We can experience joy in the midst of pain and loss. Joy is one of God’s greatest gifts to us.

Have you experienced the joy of God during or after some ministry you’ve been engaged in? It might not have looked like “ministry.” It might have been when you followed an impulse to help someone, or some time of praise. It’s a certain kind of kick we get when we allow the Holy Spirit to work through us.

If you can recall a time when you’ve felt “the joy of the master,” consider it. What were you doing? How did you feel God’s presence and activity when you were involved with that? How did you feel later? Can that happen again?

And if joy has not been much part of your experience of church, Christianity, relationship with God – there’s something to ponder too. What’s in the way – something in the institution, something in you, or both? If we can be aware of the barriers we can pray them down.

Jesus told his followers on the night before he was arrested and killed, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11) Even then, knowing what was before him, he spoke of his joy and wanting them to have it. He’s already given it to us. We need to keep unwrapping the gift.

11-15-17 - Choose or Lose

I once attended a seminar on personal finance and learned this: if you do not choose to invest your money, you are in effect choosing to lose your money, as it gradually loses value with the rate of inflation. Not choosing means losing.

A biblical exemplar of “not choosing” is the third servant in Jesus’ parable of the talents, or coins:
“The one who had received the five coins went off at once and traded with them, and made five more coins. In the same way, the one who had the two coins made two more coins. But the one who had received the one coin went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.”

Why would he think it a wise move to hide the money? He was afraid of losing it; this seemed a risk-free strategy. Turns out he was also afraid of his master, telling him when he returns from his journey: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

This guy doesn’t think very highly of his master’s integrity – he as much as calls him harsh, dishonest, a thief "appropriating" what is not his to take. This servant does not appreciate the trust placed in him – he can’t wait to be rid of the burden: “Here you have what is yours.”

Who does Jesus intend this servant to represent, I wonder? Another way of getting at that question is to ask what it means to invest our "talents" in the spiritual life. To me, investment means full-on engagement in the life of faith – orienting our lives to moving in the mission of God, praying with bold expectation, taking risks in ministry, risking some disorder, disdain, disappointment. It’s radical trust in the Spirit of God to lead and guide us. It’s saying and praying, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

By contrast, burying our “talent” is playing it safe, laying low. Instead of radical trust, we exhibit radical mistrust in the power and promises of God. We pay way more attention to the unanswered prayers and things that didn’t work than to our victories in God. We allow ourselves to become bench-warmers (or pew-warmers…), disabled and sidelined. The master in Jesus’ story has no patience with this:

“But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy servant! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the coin from him, and give it to the one with the ten coins.”

Which servant do you feel most like today? The big risk-taker investing all five of her coins, the moderate one with the two – or the one who plays it so safe he accomplishes less than nothing? If you’re in the latter category, faith-wise – what’s holding you back?
Do you mistrust God because of some pain that you feel God allowed, did not prevent? 
Prayers you did not see answered? Do you see God as a harsh judge, or as loving father?
You can afford to be honest with God. Allow the Spirit to pour some healing balm into those wounds, and think about trusting again.

The great thing about being a servant and not a master is that we don’t have to worry about results. We just have to follow orders and give it our all, and let God bring about the outcome. The very act of stepping out in faith, Jesus suggests, allows God to work through us – and the yield is abundant.

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11-14-17 - Double Or Nothing

I wish I knew the investment strategist guiding these guys in Jesus’ story
“The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.”

I don’t know what a “talent” is worth, but doubling your money is always a good deal. If my math is correct, each of these servants got a 100% rate of return. And I don’t know how sophisticated Jesus’ command of math was (hey, if he could conquer death he could handle calculus, right?), but I read into that percentage a symbol of wholeness.

This is a parable about faithfulness, not finance. As we invest faithfully the assets God has given us, we realize wholeness. And if we believe that the mission of God is to restore all of creation to wholeness, we get a big clue about how we as followers of Christ are to go about participating in God’s mission. One message of this parable is: Our acts of faith will yield fruit, 100% worth. Our holding back in fear? Nothing.

And we should expect big yields! We’ve grown so timid, so many of us nth-generation Christ-followers. For too long we have dwelt in the land of diminishing returns, our attendance and budgets and staffs shrinking, our giving tepid, our children fleeing what we know as “Church,” our neighbors disinterested in joining us. So we adjust our expectations downward – and maybe we hold back on our investment of faith and energy too. And all the while it may just be that God is leading us to do church in a new way.

This parable invites us to look up and remember who called us to those tired buildings in the first place. The Lord of Heaven and Earth says, “Join me – I am making all things new! Here, I give you all these riches, freely, your inheritance. Now plow it back into our Family Business. Let’s see what 100% growth looks like.” And you know, when we expect 100% , we’re more apt to realize it.

In what places in your life do you believe you reap a mighty return on investment of your time and energy? What feels fruitful? Why do you suppose that part works?

Where do you feel you get nothing back, or see returns diminishing? Might you ask Jesus to show you a new way to invest in that area? Maybe we need some new methods.

100% growth – I like it. it starts with our hearts and our faith and our actions, opening ourselves to the nudgings of the Holy Spirit. We can’t do it without God, and it seems God won’t do it without us.

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